In describing the temperaments of our two daughters, my husband often employs the following shorthand: “Oona is to Daphne as Edith Wharton is to John Belushi.” Anyone who has ever read about birth order won’t be surprised to learn that Oona is the older of the two. Everything they say about eldest kids is true of Oona. She’s more quiet and introspective. She was able to sit for the duration of a book (or three or four books) before she could walk. She potty-trained herself at twenty months!
If I were forced to predict which of my children would be more likely to don a beer helmet or cut class in the future, I’d have to go with Daphne. Daphne is only two years old, but I have a hunch I’m going to have a hell of a time getting her to do her homework. As much as I hate being so predictable, our family perfectly embodies all the research on the power of birth order.
I grew up with many older siblings, so when I read recently that the IQ of children decreases with their birth order I took it very personally. (I’d love to get all of my twelve siblings together and have everyone tested.) And it’s not just brain power. Studies show that along with a higher IQ, first-born children very often hold higher-paying jobs than their younger siblings and are even taller.
The more I read about this phenomenon (and the theories behind it), the more I feel definite guilt that I may be playing a role in any disparity between my own kids. One such theory has to do with the investment parents put in their first born: when they only have one child, they have more time and money. Of course, this would never be the case with my kids. I was confident that, to the best of my abilities, I’d always give the girls equal treatment. Was I ever wrong.
For the first two years of Oona’s life, she had the undivided attention of four adults. When I went back to work three months after she was born, my brother and his Irish fianc’ moved in with us to care for her. I remember coming home one day, about a week after I’d returned to work, to find Pinn (now my sister-in-law) in the kitchen cooking dinner while my brother Billy was in the living room reading Finnegan’s Wake aloud to the baby.
I’m pretty sure that Daphne’s never been exposed to any Joyce. In fact, the person most often “reading” to Daphne these days is her four-year-old sister. And once I started being honest with myself, the list of infractions grew:
– Organic fresh vegetable delivery for Oona / Daphne eats a lot of frozen patties
– Weekly sing-along class with Oona / Daphne’s more familiar with the iPod
– Special baby detergent for infant Oona / Daphne got whatever was on sale
– Saturday morning rides in the bike seat with Dad to see the dogs swimming in the park for Oona (“The fresh morning air is good for her.”) / Daphne has yet to sit on the back of Dad’s bike, and I’m afraid, at this point, she’s exceeded the maximum weight for the child seat (although, not surprisingly, we’re not sure how much she weighs)
It’s too painful to go on, but I’m now resolved to equal out the playing field. As the only child in my family that never received music lessons of any kind (MOM!), I know that the resentment can be lingering. I’d like to avoid any of that, but I still worry about what other forces are out there reinforcing this birth-order world order.
Lately, I’ve been bewildered by the difference in quality of gifts my kids receive. As Oona’s birthday is in April and Daphne was born in July, it doesn’t take too much brainpower for me to compare the loot when all is said and done. The imbalance is a bit unsettling. For instance, on her birthday Oona was delighted when the postman brought her boxes filled with dresses, stuffed animals and books (from both grandmothers).
For Daphne’s second birthday, one grandma sent her a rubber-band car (ages five and up) and included a stuffed animal for Oona in the box. The other grandma sent, as of now, three months later . . . nothing. On a recent visit, their grandfather also brought gifts. Oona was given a pretty purple shirt, another stuffed animal and a gorgeous wooden box for keepsakes. Daphne received a two-cd set of Gregorian chants. If this keeps up, I wouldn’t be shocked if Daphne asks for that beer helmet next Christmas.
Is Daphne naturally wild, or just objecting to the unequal regime she was born into? Again, it may be my fault. I sort of remember putting out an APB to the family that Daphne didn’t need anything. I seemed to have all of the playthings and girl clothes we’d ever need. I used to float infant Daphne around the room by Oona’s toys and books chanting, “All of this will be yours one day.”
She was delighted then (perhaps it was the Superman-style flying), but lately she’s not so thrilled with the promise. Now that she is fully capable of speaking and coveting, I’ve had to witness too many times Daphne asking, “Where’s mine?” It’s heartbreaking, and I wonder if her marked contrast to Oona’s pliability isn’t backlash. Is Daphne a naturally wild child, or is that just her way of objecting to the unequal regime she was born into?
My sister Margie is eighteen months older than I am. On her second grade report card, her teacher wrote, “Margie is such a good girl, so helpful and polite.” That report card fell into the hands of the wrong brother, who relentlessly teased her with the phrase, and poor Margie has never been able to live it down. But her teacher was right on the money. Margie was kind and caring. She used to finish up the chores that I wouldn’t do – just to keep me from getting yelled at. I wore black and got arrested for shoplifting at the age of thirteen. Margie preferred pink and was a member of the National Honor Society.
I wonder if I was innately worse behaved, or just trying to get even at my family for giving me the shaft. And I vow to keep this in mind with Oona and Daphne. I like to think that the behavioral gap between me and Margie has narrowed quite a bit. Further comfort comes from the opinions of my husband and friends, who think I turned out fine. I’m going to do everything I can so that, a few years down the road, I can say the same about Daphne.